How do you clean a tabernacle? What does “laying of hands” represent? Is the scapegoat a hyperlink to Cain and Abel? How was it even possible for Israelites to follow the law? In this episode, Tim and Jon respond to your questions about the Leviticus scroll. Thanks to our audience for your insightful questions!
I want to read Leviticus and see what Simeon and Anna saw and understand it in those terms. So instead of reading the New Testament back into Leviticus, I read the portraits of Jesus in the Gospels and see how they draw upon the imagery and language of Leviticus to portray Jesus. You come out with many of the same observations, but in a richer and more compelling context.
Marie from Virginia (1:02)
I've really enjoyed the series on Leviticus, but my question is of a more practical nature. Was the tabernacle ever cleaned after all of that blood sacrifice as well as that food sacrifice?
Modern readers certainly experience a grotesque irony in Leviticus, since the way to accomplish purification is a series of messy ceremonies involving large amounts of blood. The Torah never explicitly addresses how the tabernacle was cleaned, but 1 Kings 6-8 describes a huge basin of water (called “the sea”) that rests in the temple courtyard (an item not present in the wilderness tabernacle). However, the author of 1 Kings never explains what the sea is for. Archaeological evidence and the writings of Josephus inform us that during the Second Temple period, architects added a system of cisterns and pipes under the temple so that the temple mount could be washed.
Based on this later information, we can make an educated guess that there was a process to clean the altar and surrounding area in the tabernacle, but it was probably taken for granted and never mentioned—another example of how we sometimes ask questions the biblical authors don’t answer.
Elijah from West Virginia (9:06)
I have a question on the meaning behind the “laying of hands” described in Leviticus. In the Day of Atonement ceremony, with the instructions regarding the blasphemer, the laying of hands seems to indicate a transfer of sins and impurity, but we have stories in the book of Acts with Paul where the laying of hands and sending out seem to accomplish a different role. Considering Paul calls himself a blasphemer prior to his conversion, are we supposed to connect these two practices?
Leviticus never defines the practice of laying hands, but it seems to indicate that whatever is being touched is appointed as a representative on behalf of another. So when the priests lay their hands on a blameless goat, that goat becomes their blameless representative before Yahweh. While there are multiple circumstances documented in Leviticus in which the priests would lay their hands on a sacrifice, only one of those instances (the scapegoat/goat for Azazel) indicates a transfer of sins. However, the appointment of a representative applies to all instances.
With that in mind, we can see a connection between the levitical laying of hands and the apostles’ laying of hands. They were appointing representatives and transferring authority to them to carry the gospel message to other regions.
Sarah from Australia (14:26)
My question is about the Day of Atonement and the two goats. Is there any connection with Cain and Abel—Cain who was guilty and sent off into the wilderness and Abel who was innocent and whose blood was spilled on the ground?
The short answer is yes, there is a connection. The entire Hebrew Bible is a story told through repeated themes that connect one narrative to another. And the Day of Atonement rituals bear some remarkable parallels to the Cain and Abel narrative in Genesis 4. In Genesis 4, Cain murders his brother Abel, whose blood “cries out” to Yahweh from where it spills on the ground. Cain is then sent off into the wilderness. On the Day of Atonement, a blameless goat was sacrificed, and its blood was spilled on the ground. Then a second goat (called the scapegoat or goat for Azazel) was ceremonially charged with Israel’s sins and sent off into the wilderness.
When Yahweh sends Cain into the wilderness, Cain uses levitical language to describe his sin.
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is too great to bear!”
“To bear” is a translation of the Hebrew word nasa, which is the same verb used to describe what animal sacrifices do—bear the sins of the people and carry them away. God has mercy on Cain and doesn’t give him a death penalty.
So Genesis 4 is a story being told with an eye toward Leviticus, and it works the other direction too. When you read the Torah and get to the Day of Atonement, you encounter a theme you’ve already been invited to think about. When humans do evil, it defiles the land to an extent that God must respond to it.
Abraham from Oregon (21:10)
My question is about Episode 6 on the Day of Atonement. Last spring, my college group studied the life of Abraham in Genesis, and when you guys talked about the two goats, one sent into the wilderness and one for the sin offering, it made me think about how God asked Abraham to send one son into the wilderness and to sacrifice the other in Genesis 21 and 22. Is that significant? If so, does it change how we understand the narrative or the law?
The story in Genesis 21-22 is also connected to the Day of Atonement, just like Genesis 4. Remember that, on a grand scale, the entire Torah repeatedly cycles through a core set of ideas and themes.
In Genesis 21-22, God’s chosen partners, Abraham and Sarah, take matters into their own hands and abuse their slave Hagar by forcing her to conceive a son with Abraham. So Abraham ends up with two sons instead of the one he was supposed to have. As a result, God requires the lives of both sons but miraculously saves both of them. Ishmael and Hagar are exiled to the east, but God saves their lives (a connection to Cain, the non-chosen firstborn). As the chosen second-born son, Isaac’s story corresponds to Abel’s, but with a twist—God provides a substitutionary sacrifice that dies in Isaac’s place. Because of Genesis 21-22’s connection to the Cain and Abel story, it also connects to the two goats offered up on the Day of Atonement.
Human evil and failure is always dealt with in two ways: A righteous representative goes before God to receive mercy for sin, and then the sin must be banished and sent away into the wilderness. Jesus actually fulfilled both of these roles in his crucifixion—he died outside the city as humanity’s blameless representative, bearing their sins.
Jessica from Wisconsin (31:30)
In Leviticus 4, the author mentions that if someone sins unintentionally, they are to bring a sin (purification) offering to the tabernacle. I am imagining that every person would be coming just about every day to make a sacrifice. I am mostly just amazed, through this example alone, how much blood and how many dead animals are required to uphold the Levitical law. How was it even possible to even partially uphold the law?
There’s an underlying question that must be answered to address this issue. Did every Israelite bring an animal for every unintentional infraction every day? The Bible’s narratives never describe the frequency or number of people who would come to make sacrifices for unintentional sins, so we don’t know for sure. Somehow the sacrificial system remained economically viable, so sacrifices couldn’t have been so frequent that Israel was exhausting their livestock.
While these are valuable questions to consider, they also present an opportunity to check our biases. We may read about the Israelite sacrificial system and find it excessive, but it doesn’t seem like the biblical authors felt this way. When Jewish or Israelite authors write about the laws of the Torah, they are celebrating them.
Rowena from New Zealand (39:00)
I was interested in what you said about the sacrifices and how the blood represents the life of the blameless animal and not its death. How does that change the way we see what Jesus is doing when he institutes communion and says to his followers, “This is my blood for you to drink”?
In the logic of the Torah, blood represents life, which is why it makes atonement for sins (Lev. 17:11). To put it plainly, it wasn’t an animal’s death that would atone for sins—it was its blameless life. In the sacrificial system, blood is something living that goes before Yahweh to blamelessly represent the sins of the many. Death, then, is a vehicle for that blood to be brought before Yahweh. Jesus’ sacrifice, that we remember when we take communion, atoned for humanity’s sins because of his blameless life.
Emily from Canada (46:36)
Growing up, I was taught that the best approach to Leviticus was studying it for types and antitypes that point to Jesus. While I've never been entirely compelled by this approach, especially as it doesn't account for what the average Israelite thought about Leviticus, reading this book without the New Testament seems unwise. How much should the New Testament influence how I read Leviticus?
It’s not uncommon in many Christian churches and Bible colleges to read the New Testament back into the Old Testament, rather than seeking first to understand the Old Testament on its own terms. Through our series on Leviticus, we’ve been trying to acknowledge the ancient context of Israel’s rituals and laws, as well as trace the way Leviticus riffs on the same melody found on repeat throughout the Hebrew Bible. The New Testament authors draw on the themes and melody of the Hebrew Bible.
While the story of the Bible finds its fulfillment in Jesus, it’s important to explore each scroll on its own terms as well. Think of Jesus’ first followers and the first people who recognized him as the Messiah, like Simeon and Anna. All they had were the Hebrew Scriptures, and their anticipation of the Messiah came from those texts alone. Reading with these earlier followers in mind allows us to see how the Gospel stories draw upon the greater context of the full biblical story.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz with Associate Producer Lindsey Ponder. Edited by Dan Gummel, Tyler Bailey, and Frank Garza. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by Hannah Woo. Audience questions compiled by Christopher Maier.
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